THE race to replace President Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC is fast gaining momentum. As the party recently revealed, at least ten ANC leaders want to be president.
What does this say about Zuma and his legacy as party president? What does it also say about ANC deputy
president Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who should have been heir apparent?
The real ANC presidential contest is between the two men and any of the nine other contenders are either behind Zuma, or they would back Ramaphosa given a choice between the two.
Zuma clearly has an interest in who succeeds him at Luthuli House, the party headquarters. It is also a foregone
conclusion that he would prefer former AU Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to take
He cannot stand for re-election as ANC president because that would cause the creation of two centres of power, something the ANC resolutely decided against. Dlamini-Zuma is actually not a bad choice and the fact that she was once married to Zuma may well be coincidence. She was former president Thabo Mbeki’s choice to take over as head of state in 2009.
Even at the watershed ANC Polokwane conference of 2007 she was the highest after Mbeki on the latter’s ill-fated slate. Many believe Mbeki had contested Zuma because he thought he was the only one who could stop the Zuma tsunami. He felt that the task would be harder for Dlamini-Zuma. There was also the problem of many people seeing her as a Mbeki proxy. Is that history about to repeat itself?
Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is underperforming currently precisely because many of her potential supporters are put off by Zuma’s hard campaigning for her. They prefer change, not a Zuma third term. Deliberately or otherwise he projects her as his proxy.
He always makes the point of reminding ANC structures that he intends to remain vocal within the ANC in his retirement. Only a malleable ANC president would brook such interference from a predecessor.
Zuma is a shrewd politician and master tactician. Dlamini-Zuma is probably not his only choice; he does have another person or persons he can put forward should she prove to be unelectable.
The name of Free State ANC chairperson Ace Magashule gets mentioned often. In Zuma’s faction it is about Zuma,
those close to him and their interests. Most of those who will contest Dlamini-Zuma will be opposed to the extension of Zuma’s rule. It is likely that the ANC support base is tired of Zuma.
On the other hand it is clear that many of those yearning for change are frustrated by Ramaphosa’s overly cautious challenge against Zuma. It could well be that there are so many contestants because their supporters fear that Ramaphosa might choke like his predecessor Kgalema Motlanthe did at the 2012 Mangaung elective conference.
Such criticism of Ramaphosa is mostly unfair. Yes, his campaign is ultra-cautious compared to Dlamini-Zuma’s more vocal and visible one. However, he is not given due credit for the skillful player that he is, and is often underrated.
Ramaphosa is the man who got elected secretary general of the ANC in 1991, soon after it had been unbanned. In that position Zuma was his deputy. This is the man former president Nelson Mandela had preferred to be his deputy and eventual successor.
He was only 42 in 1994. A couple of years later he left politics and created a massive business empire, which makes him one of the richest people in the country today.
That is perhaps the greatest weakness of his campaign: during his hiatus he lost traction in ANC branches. He does not have a strong enough constituency within ANC structures.
In truth Ramaphosa is playing in the big league courtesy of Zuma. He only became ANC deputy president because he was in Zuma’s slate. It is possible that Ramaphosa has flipped the script on Zuma.
It is not inconceivable that Zuma could have picked him mistakenly thinking that he could later control and manipulate him. On the surface at least, it appears he is no Zuma lackey.
He has demonstrated many times, including recently at the Chris Hani Memorial Lecture, that he is not afraid to throw shade at Zuma.
It is not easy going against the man from Nkandla, and that must be a plus for Ramaphosa. Without a constituency Ramaphosa is weak. If he rocks the boat too much Zuma will elbow him out and there will not be many people in the ANC protesting in his support.
One way of challenging Zuma entails increasing his stature gently and cautiously, until he has grown his support base within the party structures. He must increase his voice and dissent without making himself vulnerable to a disciplinary process or backlash from party loyalists.
On that score he appears to be doing well. Those clamouring for a quick Zuma removal often fail to appreciate that he remains ANC president, the most powerful position in the country. He also remains very powerful within party structures.
As Ramaphosa’s voice grows louder he’ll continue to gain the support of those tired of Zuma. However, his greatest challenge will be to make headway in Zuma’s heartland, KwaZulu-Natal. The province is stubbornly behind Zuma, at least at the leadership level. The Ethekwini region, the ANC biggest and most influential, is led by Zuma loyalists.
However other party regions in the province are not sold on Dlamini-Zuma. This is partly due to disputes between the current leadership and the ousted group led by former provincial chairperson Senzo Mchunu. His successor Sihle Zikalala became triumphalist and alienated supporters of the Mchunu faction.
As the pro-Zuma and pro-Ramaphosa factions battle it out they remain oblivious to the cruel prospect of losing power in 2019, or they are involved in a perilous game of brinkmanship. To win the Union Buildings the successful candidate has two hurdles to clear: the party membership and the party support base, the latter being the decider of the general election winner.
The Zuma faction appears to be having more influence and higher numbers within party structures. On the other hand the Ramaphosa faction seems to be more appealing to the party support base, which has been put off by the innumerable Zuma administration scandals. A Zuma faction win will likely consign the ANC to opposition benches in 2019, especially if the losing faction is purged.
Even die-hard Zuma supporters and recipients of patronage still want the ANC to remain in power. Ramaphosa’s faction still has the option of leaving the ANC and joining the growing anti-Zuma coalition of opposition parties and civil society organisations. That must be leverage for Ramaphosa’s faction.
He needs to stay on message and conduct his campaign on the issues that resonate with the population’s aspirations.
Even if he trails Dlamini-Zuma in the internal ANC race, the party will still need a leadership with cross-over
appeal. In that respect, Ramaphosa is out-performing Dlamini-Zuma and, by extension, Zuma himself.
Makhosini Nkosi is an independent strategic communications and crisis management specialist.